Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Few Notes of a Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata begins with the patriarch of a Japanese family being dismissed, in a roundabout way (basically he costs too much and the Chinese are younger and cheaper), from his job at some nameless company. Hardly what someone currently unemployed (like me) wants from their evening's entertainment, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film turns out to be a deft, freewheeling, surprising portrait of a nuclear family dissipating amidst the worsening economic depression.

The urban wasteland awaits Ryûhei
Japan has been stuck in an economic downturn longer than the rest of the world, so it's no surprise that when the patriarch, Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), puts his head down and visits the job centre that the queue spirals down the several levels of building and out the door. Ryûhei doesn't tell his wife or sons about being fired, but their lives spin out of normality too - oldest Takashi (Yû Konanagi) is disenchanted with his homeland and wants to help the world by enlisting in the U.S. military, youngest Kenji (Kai Inowaki) has to develop his prodigal talent for the piano behind his father's back ("How could our child be a prodigy?"), and wife Megumi (Kyôko Koizumi) lingers in the house, her food slowly losing its power to bring the family together.

Tokyo Sonata is about the broken communication in Japanese society, the stiff traditions of internalisation and secrecy combusting in the modernised world, though it's story of masculine pride and generational divides is not unlike American Beauty. It finds human counterparts for the family's problems - Kenji runs into a classmate who is (physically) running away from his father; Ryûhei meets an old friend who is also unemployed, and keeps up a facade that involves his phone automatically ringing five times an hour - to contextualise and strengthen the issue Kurosawa is broaching.

But in its singularly poignant moments, which often blossom from the odd plot turns, particularly in the last half hour, the film sources an involving personal affection. Take this scene, where Ryûhei returns home after dining with the friend he made in the unemployed queue. Megumi is lying on the sofa, exhausted. He wakes her, turns down her offer of tempura and disappears, but he's not out of earshot when she asks:

Unheard, her arms hang in mid-air, and she lifts them further, up towards the ceiling. Whether asking her husband or some higher power, or just anyone who'll listen, the emptiness in Megumi's life is evident in her hazy, bewildered eyes as they gaze upwards.

Ryûhei doesn't touch Megumi until the end of the film.

Tokyo Sonata seems to demonize the patriarch to excess, hating him as much as it pities him, and the way it deals with him in the final stretches, especially in comparison to the piquant sequences granted to Megumi, leaves doubtful questions hanging over the ending. But these questions linger, and perhaps they are intentional worries about how everything resolves itself. The final sequence of the film is remarkably evocative and enthralling, and the silent wondering over it only strengthens the experience of a pointed social critique. B+

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

McCabe, maybe, but definitely Mrs. Miller

At points, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a film that exists only through a fog. Director Robert Altman and his cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond purposefully 'flashed' the negative and several of the camera filters to irreparably distinctify the film style, but this eerie distance isn't merely achieved visually. Leonard Cohen's nostalgic compositions make moments feel consigned to myth as we watch them. The first half of the film is about McCabe's (Warren Beatty) efforts to build a new town, and so McCabe & Mrs. Miller itself builds reality out of the fog, slowly gathering an heavy earthiness as it progresses, eventually becoming overwhelmed by the elemental. It's an experience that makes the mundane disquieting, where Mrs. Miller's (Julie Christie) matter-of-fact business smarts slice through the muted atmosphere with startling bluntness.

So obtuse I had to add a white circle so you'd even notice.
Mrs. Miller's introduction is the briefest of glimpses - a purposefully obtuse concealment. It fits perfectly into Altman's filmmaking style but it's a tease. Julie Christie is a movie star and you're waiting for her. There she i- no. Not yet.

When she finally reappears, it's perched on a carriage pulled by a steam engine struggling up the hill, puffing deafeningly. An inconspicuous entrance into McCabe's life, but then she hops off and marches into the film without any nonsense. "You John McCabe? Mrs. Miller. I came up from Beatport to see ye'," she says, an astonishingly Cockney accent in the American Northwest. The accent is never discussed or disputed, and is merely an element of the difference of the character that hangs over proceedings. She and McCabe are the different, the focus, and though she's been absent for a quarter of the film already, Altman seems to inject her straight into the film's centre. As she pauses in the half-built saloon, the camera seems to take breathe with her, a short sharp shot of her at an angle 90° apart from the neighbouring frames:

When in the restaurant, the camera isolates the eponymous pair, the naturalist aesthetic retaining the sound of the community around them but this lofty angle setting them into a dark, reclusive corner, glowing in their own light. Christie's accent compounds the brisk, straightforward mundanity of what her entrance brings to the film - she yanks it back from the misty nostalgia, talks of the prostitutes' "monthlies" and greed for money and blows her nose like a foghorn. Unlike that which surrounds her, we know nothing about Mrs. Miller's past, her directness, and Christie's brusque, unfettered characterisation ensuring that her present is her sole existence for the majority of the film.

"You get out of my shot, you wanker."
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is about masculinity. It's about McCabe's bravado, his cowardice hiding behind a legend, and how Mrs. Miller cracks straight through it, leans him out of the frame and challenges his restricted dreams. She is the reality, the smart and the active; where he is the fool, the coward who has a distorted sense of the real world, of its currency and its death. It is also about modernity - the steam engine shuddering up the hill - and, as the economic crux of the film makes itself apparent in the suited agents, the film slowly gets heavier, earthier, more present. The romantic gauze of the early scenes seems to vanish, and the whistlingly nostalgic music fades away, lost and entwined in the howling wind. The physical reality of the town he built up ultimately surrounds McCabe and suffocates him.

Finally, lost in Mrs. Miller's observation too...
Mrs. Miller's own ending stares into the vibrant red and answers nothing about her feelings for McCabe. Altman frequently zooms breathlessly onto people merely observing, no answers to be found in their own face, nor any questions being asked. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an escape into a nostalgic past where people are just as inert as they were in 1971, and as they are now. As colour and music drain from the film, it is not accidental that proceedings become more realistic. This is a life without colour, and possibly without love. But it is that possibility that lingers, and where the masterpiece might lie. A-